LONDON - A British judge has ruled that Julian Assange, the founder of the whistleblowing website WikiLeaks, cannot be extradited to the United States because of the risk he could commit suicide in U.S. detention.
District Judge Vanessa Baraitser delivered the verdict Monday.
“I am satisfied the procedures described by the U.S. will not prevent Mr. Assange from finding a way to commit suicide and for this reason I have decided extradition would be oppressive by reason of mental harm and I order his discharge,” Baraitser told the court.
Assange faces 18 U.S. federal charges relating to allegations of hacking, theft of classified material, and the disclosure of the identities of U.S. informants. Prosecutors have already appealed the verdict.
Supporters of Assange celebrated outside the Old Bailey criminal court as the decision was read out. His partner, Stella Moris, called on the U.S. to drop the charges.
“Today's victory is the first step towards justice in this case. We are pleased that the court has recognized the seriousness and inhumanity of what he has endured and what he faces. But let’s not forget the indictment in the U.S. has not been dropped. We are extremely concerned that the U.S. government has decided to appeal this decision,” Moris told reporters. “I call on the president of the United States to end this now."
Baraitser concluded that Assange would have a fair trial at the U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Virginia, and that he should answer the charges of hacking, theft and disclosure of the identities of U.S. informants. Baraitser said, however, that she had reached the verdict after considering evidence from psychiatrists who said that Assange was planning to commit suicide if he were to be extradited. She added that the conditions in which he would be jailed, in almost solitary confinement, meant that the U.S. prison system could not prevent him taking his life.
Assange’s lawyers argued the entire prosecution was politically motivated and that extradition would pose a threat to journalism, claims U.S. prosecutors denied.
“The court today came to the right decision in barring his extradition, but her judgment made some incredibly problematic findings from a free speech point of view,” Assange’s lawyer, Jennifer Robinson, told the Reuters news agency. “I think British journalists and free speech organizations need to be taking a close look at this judgment, and, of course, we will be over the coming days. But this was not a win from a free speech point of view in terms of her findings on the criminalization of journalistic conduct and the application of the Official Secrets Act, and I think this will be a matter for discussion in the coming days.”
Press freedom campaigners echoed those concerns. Rebecca Vincent, director of international campaigns at Reporters Without Borders, wrote on Twitter: “We fully believe that Assange was targeted for his contributions to journalism, and would have liked to see a strong position from the court in favor of journalistic protections and press freedom. That wasn't the case; extradition was prevented only on mental health grounds.”
In 2010 and 2011, Assange oversaw the publication by WikiLeaks of tens of thousands of diplomatic cables and military reports relating to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Assange says the leak exposed abuses by the U.S. military.
The United States accuses Assange not just of leaking, but also of hacking and stealing classified material that endangered national security and put informants’ lives at risk. Last year, the Justice Department said Assange played a central role “in one of the largest compromises of classified information in the history of the United States.”
Ultimately, the British judge ruled that concerns over Assange’s mental health override the U.S charges, said Marcy Wheeler, an American author on national security and civil liberties, and founder of the website emptywheel.
“This is the third time this has happened with the United States trying to extradite people from the U.K. And there have been cases where it has been closely fought for terrorism defendants as well,” Wheeler told VOA.
Assange’s lawyers plan to submit an application for bail in the coming days. It is possible that Assange could face prosecution in Britain, said Wheeler.
“I wouldn’t rule out the United States and the U.K. cooperating to doing something like that because it is the kind of thing they do on national security cases. These (U.S.) charges argued that Assange revealed coalition informant identities, not just U.S. informant identities, which would be understood to include British informants.”
Assange sought refuge in the Ecuadorean embassy in London in 2012 after facing accusations of rape in Sweden, a case that was later dropped. He stayed there for seven years until Ecuador allowed British police to arrest him in April 2019. He was then jailed for 50 weeks for breaching bail.
For now, Assange is back in London’s Belmarsh prison pending his bail application. The appeal process against the ruling could take several months or more, with the British justice system facing severe disruption amid the coronavirus pandemic.